Posts Tagged 'Iceland'


Everywhere except Reykjavik, on both ends of our Icelandic trip, we had sightings of the common snipe (Gallinago gallinago). This species is not to be confused with the related Wilson’s snipe, which we have in Brooklyn, and which was considered the same species until recently, making the confusion understandable.

Above each of the farms we stayed at — Langaholt, Vogafjos, Smylabjorg, and Hofdabrekka — at least one snipe, and sometimes up to six, were to be seen. At Smylabjorg, I flushed one out from right in front of me while tramping through a meadow and on the lookout for both nests and sheep droppings. The one pictured was vocalizing on a rock near our rooms in Vogafjos. He hushed himself as I approached, then returned to calling when I retreated.

Small, furiously fast fliers, the snipe were usually seen above, going back and forth across the sky, then dropping suddenly in graceful free-fall curves. But they were generally heard overhead first. As part of their courtship and territorial rituals, the males extend specially adapted feathers on the side of their tail. These look a little like oddly placed legs through binoculars. As the birds descend, the air rushing through the feathers make a haunting sound. It’s known as winnowing, a sort of dry, drumming “huhuhuhu.” But transliteration of bird sounds rarely does justice to the original (I haven’t found a good clip on-line yet: the Wilson’s is rather different). It’s a very strange, stark, and beautiful sound. It’s like the land and the sky, indeed the world, is breathing. Frankly, it took my breath away, time after time.

For me, it has become the very sound of Iceland.

Other Icelandic Animals

White-tailed bumblebee (Bombus locorum), seen a number of places in Iceland, finally digitally captured in the small garden behind the Parliament building.

Besides birds, Iceland doesn’t have a lot of other animals, including invertebrates. The number of bugs is growing, though, as the world warms. Moths were a common sight, in the long diurnal light. There were sky-darkening masses of midges at Myvatn, a place name which actually means “midge water”; we had to use our bug nets one morning to keep them from flying into our eyes. They don’t bite, thankfully. And they are the reason the lake is so popular with the thirteen species of ducks that breed there.

We did see an incredible black slug (I’d unaccountably left my camera in the van). Among mammals, the arctic fox is a native, the reindeer an import: unfortunately, we didn’t see the former, but we did see a herd of the latter near Egilsstadir in the east. Fantasias of antlers.
This spider was an unexpected find on the rim of Hverfell, the amazing, and largely barren, tephra crater near Myvatn.


I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk roses and with eglantine.

Iceland is full of desolate, hraun (lava) fields, some moss-coated, others bare as an outer planet. The southern sandurs, outwash plains, are dark deserts. But, with all its rain and long summer days, and the mild effects of the Gulf Stream, the island also has a rich profusion of wildflowers.
We saw the most enormous dandelions, and vast fields of arctic lupine.
The grass and moss are emerald, the flowers jewels.

Icelandic birds

The omnipresent common redshank (Tringa totanus), seen and most definitely heard throughout the island.
Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla), at Arnarstapi. Two chicks are usual.
Black guillermot (Cepphus grylle) in Husavik harbor.
Common eider (Somateria mollissima) with ducklings. The most common duck seen; many young, but few adult males, who must have been in eclipse.
Black-headed gull (Larus ridibundus) at Myvatn.
Snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) after bathing in Jokulsarlon.
Shit. We found this dead short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) on the road to Reynir. These owls, one of the few that can be seen in daylight (and this time of year, there is no darkness in Iceland), fly very low, which is probably how it was killed while crossing the road. For three nights at Vogafjos at Myvatn, we were amazed by a short-eared flying low over the farm outside the inn’s dinning room.

Here are all the birds I saw in Iceland, including fifteen life species: Common loon, Red-throated loon, Whooper swan, Greylag goose, Mallard, Tufted duck, Harlequin duck, Greater scaup, Barrow’s goldeneye, Common eider, Northern fulmar, Northern gannett, Gyrfalcon, Eurasian oystercatcher, Ringed plover, European golden plover, Common snipe, Black-tailed godwit, Whimbrel, Common redshank, Red-necked phalarope, Red phalarope, Parasitic jaeger, Great skua, Black-headed gull, Glaucous gull, Great black-backed gull, Lesser black backed gull, Black-legged kittiwake, Arctic tern, Murre, Black gullermot, Puffin, Rock dove, Short-eared owl, Meadow pipit, White wagtail, Winter wren, Northern wheatear, Redwing, Raven, Common redpoll, Snow bunting, Starling.

The highlights were the black-tailed godwit, the Icelandic subspecies of which has particularly bright mating plummage; the red-necked phalarope, surprising small; and the parastic jaeger, also known as the Arctic skua, a nasty customer for other birds, but something to look at, indeed.

The greatest coup of the trip was a gyrfalcon in Dimmubogir, the “Dark Castles” in Myvatn. The first view was distant, not good enough to ID beyond “falcon,” since merlins are also present in Iceland. But then we heard the bird, which vocalizes quite differently from the merlin, and backtracked to see if we could see it again. We did: it was zooming above and below the jagged lava outcroppings. I also spotted what might very well have been the gyrfalcon’s nest, heavily whitewashed with droppings below. Later, I read that the birds’ scrapes are associated with a yellowish green lichen growing amidst the dropping. This had that too! Leaving Dimmubogir on our hike to the tephra crater Hverfell, we saw our gyr, or another, fly by at a much closer distance. Sweet.

The rest of my Icelandic trip blogs are here.

Some Icelandic Context


My sweetheart and I are back from a magnificent, spectacular, ten day trip around Iceland with a group from the American Littoral Society. Posts about the trip begin here, randomly, at Day Two: these pictures are from Gardar (my apologies to Icelanders for my being too hot and humid to try to find the eth and thorn key commands), on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
Two whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus) set up a hue and cry as I walked down a path towards the beach.
I knew why, but didn’t see the evidence until the next day.
The summer is short and intense up there just under the Arctic Circle, and the land is filled with vociferous breeding birds. (Stay tuned…)

Mostly Ichthyomonetary

(Wikimedia Commons image)


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